By Heather M. Higgins, CNN
New York (CNN) – Daylight pours in a large northern exposed window and bounces off the grape-colored walls of a 13’ x 10’ office that is part of the 5500 square foot arts and science co-operative called Collab.
The six employees who work shoulder-to-shoulder at this lower Manhattan startup are designing tiny, brightly colored electronic squares. However, these Lego-like modules are much more than the next hot toy on the market – they’re encouraging young boys and girls to learn about science, engineering and basic circuits.
“The idea is that we want to make every single electronic interaction in the world into a ready to use brick,” says Ayah Bdeir, 29, founder and CEO of littleBits, a company that has been selling their product for less than a year.
One of the people collaborating to advance this mission is Krystal Persaud, 23, a 2010 graduate of Georgia Tech who interned for three months before being hired as a full-time junior industrial designer on June 1st. Persaud, who has always been into art and painting, pushed herself to pursue a degree in industrial design.
Her skills were tested at a recent workshop she titled ‘Techno Jungle’ – a littleBits Saturday class to inspire children to build animals whose tails spin and eyes light up.
“Krystal impressed me when I met her on Skype by her project ‘The Closed Loop,’ Bdeir said. “She grew weary of superficial sustainability solutions and embarked on a self-imposed project over several months where she was not going to produce any waste, and instead was going to live with her trash. I hired Krystal because, like us, she wants to change the world, she is starting from within, and most importantly, she knows how to have fun doing it.”
Bdeir believes given the right tools, everyone is an innovator. We recently sat down with up-and-coming star, Persaud, to get a former intern’s perspective on innovation.
CNN: Of all the great and diverse startups in New York, why did littleBits peak your interest?
Persaud: If you look at professional societies like IDSA (Industrial Designers Society of America) it’s very corporate. It’s like cell phone design, toasters, car design, and things that were designed decades ago and I didn’t really feel like the process was moving forward. So one thing that I really liked about littleBits was it was a totally new approach to product design and prototyping.
CNN: What’s it like to work at a startup that is on the verge of hitting it big?
Persaud: It’s fast paced. We all work really hard; you can tell everyone is dedicated. There are some really late nights when we order Mexican at 8 p.m. but we’re all still there and want to be here. I think that kind of camaraderie is really important because if we were all the kind of people who wanted to book it at five, this wouldn’t be the place for you. I feel really fortunate to be part of this team.
CNN: How do you like working with Ayah?
Persaud: My second week they were like, “You’re going to sit here now,” and I was like, “Oh my god it’s my second week and I’m sitting next to the CEO, this is crazy.” One of the other reasons I wanted to join a startup is because I like entrepreneurial things. The whole process of designing a product to actually getting it to the market is so challenging but interesting, so sitting next to Ayah I feel all her ups and downs.
CNN: Why are you a believer in this product?
Persaud: It involves a lot of things I believe in – design, education and technology, and it combines all three of those things in one. So it’s really empowering for designers when people want to create things because the product breaks it down into a level they can understand. This is so cliché but it does break barriers in terms of disciplines where you know engineers love them, designers love them and little kids love them. It’s like that immediate response that if I brought this to anyone, it doesn’t matter what language you speak, it doesn’t matter how old you are, they understand and I think that’s pretty amazing.
CNN: What is the best reaction you’ve seen to littleBits?
Persaud: My dad is actually an electrical engineer so it’s weird because I never really thought I would ever get into electronics until after college and I started to get a little more technical. But I gave him a kit for Father’s Day and it was funny to watch him actually play with them because I could see his brain moving. And he really liked them. That was one stamp of approval that I really wanted.
CNN: What are the needs of your various audiences and how does the team meet them?
Persaud: I think for kids we meet it because everything is pre-engineered, so for them, it’s just another better Lego, where they are building blocks that empower them to make something. We have a tagline that says make something that does something and I think that’s a good umbrella for little kids. For engineers it’s the speed of it, and for designers too the fact that you don’t have to do all the work to get the same result - that’s really powerful in research and development. For teachers too. That’s another huge thing - we are trying to roll out curriculums to help teachers teach kids about electronics in a more fun and efficient way.
CNN: What’s next? How are you innovating with new littleBits?
Persaud: We have a lot of new bits in development. I can’t really say what they are until they are released. We have 28 right now so just expanding that to a growing library so that the interactions are endless. And we are releasing an extended kit pretty soon in the coming months.
CNN: Define innovation in your own words.
Persaud: My first reaction is forward thinking. But it’s also like, how do you define forward thinking? Innovation is solving problems in creative ways. Whatever it is, you’re making someone’s life better, and you’re making an improvement.
CNN: What advice can you offer someone who is interested in pursuing a career path like yours?
Persaud: The best thing is to just do what you would want to see.
To learn about the projects you can create with littleBits as well as the inspiration for Ayah Bdeir’s company, watch “The Next List" this Sunday, July 8th, at 2 p.m. ET on CNN.